A Discussion with Fayyaz Baqir, Director, Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Centre
Background: This discussion took place in preparation for a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia, held in Dhaka, Bangladesh January 10-11, 2011. The consultation is an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Henry R. Luce Foundation. Its aim is to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Fayyaz Baqir. In this interview, he reflects on how Sufi teachings have informed his views on development, focusing specifically on education, dialogue, peacebuilding and the role of faith actors, and research.
Interview Conducted on October 27, 2010
How has your background led you to your current position at the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center?
It has been a very long journey. I was raised in a very conservative religious family with very strict views about religion. My father was a member of the central committee of a conservative right wing religious political party of Pakistan known as Jamaat- e- Islami. It was the most prominent right wing organization in the country. As I grew up, I went to college during a time of student movements around the world. I was very influenced and inspired by communist idea of revolution, and became a member of left wing student organization called Nationalist Students Organization (NSO).
I stayed active in leftist politics from 1969-79. However, I gradually started to feel that there were some gaps in both the right-wing and communist ideologies. At this point, Pakistan had come under military rule, prompting me to move to North America, first to Canada, and then to the USA for 6 years. I was very inspired by the democratic culture, liberal values, and pluralism of North America, but I still thought that the western discourse did not address all of the issues that had an impact on society. Gradually, I began to identify imperfections in the western approach. I realized that despite the commitment of western culture to freedoms and pluralism, human suffering could not be mitigated without going beyond the rational discourse. Western rational thinking had imperceptibly made inroads in the conservative religious ideology in Pakistan. It dawned on me that we cannot really help the people that we really want and need to help unless we accept their shortcomings arising out of their irrational behavior. Acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness for human irrationality is a part of Sufi thinking.
I realized that we need to bring forgiveness and understanding into our framework. Even if people makes errors and take irrational steps, in principle we must work with them to find a way to create an environment of mutual support and assistance.
It was by following along this train of thinking that in 1988, I approached a Sufi teacher Pir Ghulam Moinuddin, in Islamabad. Pir Ghulam Moinuddin was grandson of great Sufi master Pir Syed Mehr Ali Shah. I became his disciple. His teachings became a source of inspiration for me and enabled me to see unity in diversity in society, an element that I found to be missing in other discourses and ideologies. His teachings guided me for the next 22 years, and enabled me to see different views about life, politics, and society, and to be compassionate towards those who subscibe to different views about life. Others have shortcomings, as we have shortcomings ourselves. Sufi teachings completely changed my life and how I work.
I worked for the United Nations for 16 years, from 1992-2008, as Country Coordinator for small grants programme for improvement of the environment and in the course of my work I was in touch with a very diverse group of people at the grassroots level. My work linked me to my colleagues, even though we came from very different backgrounds. During this time, the shrine which I belonged to started publishing a Sufi magazine, and I was made the first editor. After resigning from the UN in 2008, I continued my work with the vulnerable and disenfranchised sections of our society through Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Centre (AHKRC).
What work does the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center do, particularly on issues of development?
At the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center, we believe that research about the human condition and ways to bring about positive change in the quality of life can be strengthened. In actuality, there is very little research available on the conditions of low income and socially deprived communities in Pakistan. Our first objective is to conduct research on theories of societal change and collect research work that been done, at the micro level, that touches on experience in efforts to improve people's quality of life. We document, analyze, and draw lessons from the field work that has and is being done by civil society and development agencies, to promote policy change and create awareness. Faith-based organizations, secular organizations, and government can all learn a lot from the kind of research we are doing.
For example, one of the studies we have done is on the right of homeless people to shelter. We have documented and reviewed policies that have been followed by government agencies in this regard. Based on our critical appraisal of shelter policy, we have held discussion forums and conducted awareness campaign to seek compliance with the government policies. Our advocacy for the right to shelter has included mobilizing the Ministry of Human Rights, UN Habitat, faith-based organizations, and media to demand an officially approved shelter policy. Due to our evidence based work and reaching out to a broad constituency, we have found a champion for the cause of homeless in the form of Federal Minister for Human Rights.
We also completed a study on provision of basic education in two rural Union Councils. Union Council is the lowest tier of government in Pakistan. We have looked at the scale, quality and impact of both the government run (secular) and religious institutions engaged in providing basic literacy to children of school going age. We have found out that whereas there is high ratio of "ghost schools" (where corrupt officials pocket the salaries paid by the government to non-existent teachers) that are government run, all the schools established by faith based organizations are fully functional. They depend on financial contributions made by the community and accommodate both male and female students. The Government needs to learn a lot from these schools in terms of commitment, outreach, quality, and sustainability. We hope our work to distill learning from these institutions will also positively affect higher education, to inspire young leaders and teach them to think differently about the present status-quo.
You have said that the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center's work is based on the assumption that the key barrier in the progress of Pakistani society is moral, not economic. What do you mean by that exactly?
It was the belief of our founder, Akhter Hameed Khan, that poverty in Pakistan is not linked to lack of resources or lack of development. Poverty is rather due to unequal distribution of income, the behavior of the ruling elite, who have little concern to the large working class population that forms the majority of human and social capital in society. The moral attitudes of many in power blocks opportunity for social, economic, and physical mobility among the poor. That is one of the reasons for widespread poverty in Pakistan. As part of our work we interact with both religious leaders, as well as those that do not belong to religious organizations, to find solutions on issues of development and poverty.
People need to be organized and guided on: how to follow and influence public policy, how to look for solutions to bring about change in their own lives, and how to organize their own power to bring about change.
Can you speak about the advocacy work your organization does?
What we do is we first conduct research on issues we think have significant importance to the Pakistani context, including for example, town management and madrasa education. Once we have some initial research done, we organize public forums to which we invite politicians, government officials, media, academic institutions, NGOs, and ordinary citizens. The participants then debate our findings and indentify people to continue the research on challenges that came out of the debate. We continue to provide technical support on a long-term basis. At this point, we consider sustained debates on these issues to be the most valuable outcome of our advocacy work. In the years to come we anticipate creating constituencies of people upholding specific rights.
I read that the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center is supporting a Master's level Program on Rural Development at the International Islamic University. Can you speak about your involvement and the program, and how issues of faith are integrated into the development curriculum?
We helped the University design the program on education and rural development, and signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on curriculum and providing/training teachers. The basic moral value behind the program is that without participation, there can be no meaningful development, and one cannot bring about meaningful change in society. That is the message we are trying to communicate, guiding students and providing support. . Islamic faith tells us that he who serves people is their true leader. The Master's in Rural Development Programme (MRD) teaches students practical ways to serve the people in rural areas. Service to the people consists in enabling them to develop and unleash their true potential for professional and social development. This entails creating their own organizations, improving their practical skills, and pooling their own resources to improve their livelihoods. MRD teaches all these principles by sharing and teaching about experiences of successful rural support programs in Pakistan.
More generally, for education in Pakistan, what are the challenges, and how do you see faith-inspired educational institutions fitting into the overall education strategy moving forward? What are the tensions and challenges?
There are three key challenges: 1) to integrate faith-based and secular education, particularly on issues of technology and modern sciences. 2) Modernize education, both religious and secular education in order to bring it closer to global development levels. 3) Make research an integral component of education in Pakistan. Overall, research in Pakistan is very weak, and the content of current curricula is based on this research, so it too is weak.
How about madrasas in Pakistan? What are the issues and challenges?
Most madrasas have never been involved with militancy and extremism; their role has been only to educate and instill scholarly values among students. There is a need to engage madrasas of all kinds and bring them into the mainstream. Generally for Pakistanis in their daily life, they go to pray in mosques five time a day, and madrasas are located in these mosques, and people make financial contributions to madrasas. Madrasas, in fact, are not seen as a core of tension.
Also, politics is not very visible in madrasas, although some politicians support religious elements in madrasas, or are inspired by their religious thinking. That however is a minority view. Madrasas are generally minimally engaged in the political sphere.
How does conflict continue to affect development in Pakistan?
Conflict has become a major concern for people, because now even mosques and shrines are not safe. In every walk of life, people want to address the issue of conflict, and we think the most important intervention is to debate: the roots and ideology of the conflict, the various political options and range of choices available. We have not yet exhausted the range of peaceful options that exist; violence should always be the last resort. We hope that through creating awareness, people, consciously or unconsciously, will not support terrorism. It is important as well to reach out to the actors of conflict, and show them that the issues they are trying to address can be addressed without conflict and bloodshed. Education is a very important means to achieve this goal. There is enormous room for reforming our system of governance through parliament, courts, media campaigns, informed debates and public pressure. Violence can only be justified when all these means have been exhausted. People need to be educated about the room available within the system to make changes and how to use these means effectively.
Are you aware of any successful religious peacebuilding efforts that have, or that are taking place?
Religious peacebuilding efforts are at a very preliminary stage. Most of the moderate religious scholars and leaders, up to a few months back, were not actively engaged. They expected that things will change and improve on their own, but now they are realizing that may not be the case, and that situation of insecurity is affecting a large number of people. The efforts that do exist are in a preliminary state, mostly in the form of protests, but they are starting to seek to find a way to initiate dialogue which will address the various issues behind the conflict and help them to find common ground between those engaged in conflict and those that want to end the conflict. However, as I said, not much has been done to this point. It needs sophisticated and fine planning done in a very thoughtful way. Three alliances of religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead in education on public opinion, organizing mass rallies and processions and, declaring war against the terrorists. These alliances include Sunni Tehrik, Sunni Ittehad Council and Jamaat Ahle Sunnat. These alliances enjoy the silent support of the Muslim majority in Pakistan.
However their main challenge is to come up with creative analyses of the conflict and options available to diffuse it. Sufis have believed in spreading their message through personal example. Their view is based on the hope that people do make mistakes but they cannot go very far away from their Lord. With prayers, personal attention and Allah's blessing they can establish their connection with the Lord. Faith cannot be spread with a sword. However, Sufis have always supported wars against injustice. Sufi ways consist of compassion, hope and wisdom. It would be interesting to mention here the event which led to death of Hadhrat Ali who was spiritual teachers of almost all Sufi Orders. He was stabbed in the back by a person who had joined the congregation prayer which he led. After being wounded he called his two sons and advised them to keep three things in mind: One, that the person who had attacked him was accused, not proven guilty, so he should be offered courtesy, food and protection.; two, the judge, and not you or anyone else will decide the case; three, if I die and my assassin is proven guilty, I forgive him. Sufis believe that at times you need to knife and at times you need to be a lamb. Great Sufi Master of Punjab Shah Hussain very aptly described the Sufi approach when he said you need the needle of consciousness and thread of love to graft the fruit of wisdom.
Turning to issues of gender, what are the main gender challenges facing Pakistan? What are the faith dimensions?
I would want to mention two important facts: 1) there is a very high level of gender sensitivity across both faith-based and secular organizations. Most madrasas, for example, have more female students than male students, creating more than equal opportunities for women. The same is the case in institutions of higher learning.
Recently, we conducted a survey of village mosques and madrasas, and every mosque had coeducation for both male and female students. The survey showed that: mosques had a universal presence in each village; they mostly depended on community contributions to raise funds; they provided meals and board for the students in need; and unlike their government counterparts, they were universally functional and transparent. However, that does not mean that gender equality is still not a critical issue. Gender thinking of religious leaders is influenced by feudal values and needs to be critically examined and discussed in public.
There is an awareness of gender issues among faith-based organizations. A Sufi teacher in Karachi, Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi, wrote a book that said the 21st century will be the century of women, that women will gradually come to power, and men will lose power in parts of society. The author mentioned the lives of 1001 women in Muslim history, contributing to the awareness of gender among faith based organizations. The awareness levels appear to be much higher among faith-based groups than in non faith-based ones.
Other areas where there continues to be inequality are: gender equality in the workplace and women's right to inherit property. One area where we have seen considerable gains are in government, where one-third of the members of parliament are women (by quota), as well as gains at the local government level. In the media and education industries as well, women are active. That being said, I want to reiterate that there are other areas, which I have mentioned that have a long way to go.
Religious extremism has made many western donors and development agencies hesitant to engage faith actors in development. What do you think can be done at a policy level to clear misunderstandings and engage those faith actors that are doing excellent work?
There are two things; it is a very complex issue. First, extremism has its roots in the cold war and particularly in the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. It is very much related to western confrontation against Soviet bloc. The roots of extremism cannot be attributed to what is happening in our society, or in other Muslim societies.
Second, extremism is based on a parochial tribal mindset. If we do not engage "extremist" actors in the development dialogue, then we allow this mentality to continue.
Unfortunately, extremism is confused with the work of faith-based organizations. We need to differentiate between "extremist" activities and faith-based activities. When people start imposing their faith on others they commit extremism. Considering spread of their faith as something noble, extremists justify the use of violence for this purpose. Ironically this thinking is closer to Machiavellian thinking that ends justify the means. This has nothing in common with Islamic thought.
According to Islamic teachings, if you kill one person, you kill the entirety of humanity. The people who turn to extremism however, also draw from common Islamic sources. We must work to create a fine understanding of the spirit of Islamic teaching.
We need to create a condition for extremist organizations to open up; that is the only way that they can become aware of the choices available to them, and through this change their mindset. To fight the closed mind, you have to promote openness and intervention. Development agencies need to engage these groups in government programs, financial assistance, and development dialogue.
Looking specifically at the Pakistani context, faith plays a large role in many segments of society, and provides inspiration to many working for social good. That said, do you see a clear distinction between organizations inspired by faith, and those that are outwardly not, or is a more nuanced understanding necessary? I have heard comments suggesting the latter.
One thing you need to understand is that when we engage in "secular development activities", whether for food , clothing, shelter, income, etc, with the objective to please our lord, we are establishing close connections with him through serving his creatures. The activities thus become spiritual or faith-based activities. If we do the same activity for our personal objectives and desires, the activities become secular. So the difference between faith-based and secular activities is not the nature of the activities, but the purpose and direction of the activities. I consider both faith-based and secular activities working towards a society following the true spirit of Islamic teachings to be spiritual and noble.